5 questions to ask a financial adviser before hiring one

The retirement checklist
The retirement checklist

My husband and I have been reluctant to work with a financial adviser because my husband doesn't trust anyone. What questions should we ask to be sure that we're getting someone who is competent and reliable? -- Deb J., Maryland

It's no secret that the financial industry has a trust problem. Money pros essentially admitted as much in a recent survey, attributing investors' distrust to a "lack of ethical culture within financial firms."

So I don't blame your husband for being wary.

But based on my 30 years of experience writing about financial issues, I also know that there are plenty of competent and honest advisers who genuinely want to help their clients.

To identify someone who's skilled and trustworthy and avoid salespeople posing as advisers or, worse yet, an outright charlatan who just wants to separate you from your money, here are five questions you and your husband can ask an adviser before you hire one.

1. What credentials do you have?

There are dozens of titles and designations floating around these days, many of them dubious. But assuming you're looking for in-depth comprehensive advice -- say, to develop an overall saving and investing strategy to put you on track for a secure retirement -- you probably want a financial planner who holds the highly regarded Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFc) designation.

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If, on the other hand you're just looking for a few fund recommendations or want to get a ballpark estimate of how much you should be saving for retirement, then a broker with an established, reputable investment firm or a representative with a mutual fund firm or discount brokerage that has a good roster of online tools and calculators for selecting investments and building a portfolio may be able to satisfy your needs.

2. Are there restrictions on the menu of products and services you can offer?

Ideally, you want an adviser who can build a diversified portfolio by picking the best options available, even if that means mixing and matching mutual funds, ETFs and other investments from a variety of firms.

In reality, though, many advisers are limited to a menu of investments and services that are sold by the company they work for or by affiliated firms.

Even if they can choose broadly in theory, some advisers may have a financial incentive to focus on the offerings of particular firms, or on specific investments (say, variable or index annuities). If, for whatever reason, an adviser is likely to steer you to a narrow roster of investments, you need to know about that beforehand so you can decide whether such strictures will interfere with you getting a portfolio that truly meets your needs.

3. How and how much will you charge?

Typically, advisers earn a living by collecting commissions on the investment products and services they sell, charging a fee for their advice or by doing both.

You can argue the pros and cons of each. But whichever method the adviser uses, he should provide a written estimate of the total fees and charges you'll pay initially and on an ongoing basis, as well as a breakdown of those costs.

Related: Sane investing in a scary market

That breakdown should include all payments going to the adviser from any source (fees, commissions, "trail" commissions paid on a yearly basis), as well as the underlying costs of the investments themselves (investment management fees, etc.). If you'll incur an exit fee or surrender charge for getting out of an investment, that should be disclosed as well.

4. How will you manage conflicts of interest?

There are any number of ways an adviser's interests may not align completely with yours.

Advisers who earn commissions may be tempted to sell you investments that give them the highest payout. Those who charge an annual fee for advice based on assets may have an incentive to let that fee automatically rise as assets do, even if the adviser's workload doesn't increase. A fee-only adviser might also be prone to avoid investments that can reduce the level of assets under management, such as immediate annuities.

For more than four years now, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Labor have been working on ways to better protect investors dealing with such conflicts. It's still unclear, though, if and when they'll take action.

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In the meantime, discussing potential conflicts in advance will allow you to see possible pitfalls in your relationship with the adviser, and give the adviser the opportunity to explain what he'll do to assure you are treated fairly.

5. How will I know if your advice is working?

A good adviser should propose some way of periodically gauging whether his guidance is paying off. That might mean comparing returns of recommended mutual funds or ETFs, as well as the investment portfolio overall, to the performance of an appropriate index or benchmark. In the case of broader advice, the adviser might need to show that your financial net worth is growing or that you're making quantifiable progress toward a secure retirement or some other long-term goal.

But you and the adviser should agree on some metric beforehand, as well as on a timetable (say, quarterly or semi-annually) for assessing performance and fine-tuning if needed.

Clearly, asking these five questions can't guarantee you'll end up with a terrific adviser. But if you combine them with a thorough background check with the regulators listed in the Check Out A Broker or Adviser section of the Securities and Exchange Commission site, you'll tilt the odds in your favor.

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Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.